Nothing I’ve read exemplifies the misdirection of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s campaign for the Aug. 19 Lower House elections better than a letter that appeared in last Tuesday’s Asahi Shimbun from a reader who said he had to look up sekinin-ryoku after seeing it used in various LDP ads.

In English it literally means “responsibility-power,” or “the ability to be responsible,” a phrase that apparently doesn’t make any more sense in Japanese since the reader couldn’t find it in the dictionary. He assumed that what the ads were getting at was sekinin-kan, or “sense of responsibility,” and though it’s obvious that what the LDP wants to convey is that it takes its responsibilities seriously, it’s easy to infer that it should also take responsibility for the very serious problems that Japan faces at the moment. The LDP has been the ruling party for 50 years. Who else are you going to blame?

Almost every local and national election since the end of the Koizumi administration has been seen as a referendum on the ruling coalition’s performance. Voters indicated their lack of confidence during the last Upper House election by handing a majority to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, and then the LDP and its coalition partner, New Komeito, proved that they just didn’t get it by railroading bills through the Lower House. In the meantime, two LDP prime ministers took responsibility for their own failures by resigning abruptly and unexpectedly. Last month, the DPJ came out on top in the Tokyo Assembly elections, thus prompting the dissolution of the Lower House.

In its most recent telephone survey the Asahi Shimbun asked people which party they would vote for. The DPJ still leads, but when queried about specific points in the DPJ’s manifesto, the support rate was lower. Fifty-four percent of DPJ supporters said they disapproved of the party’s plan to make expressways toll-free, and only 33 percent said they approved of the party’s plan for a guaranteed child allowance. Moreover, 83 percent of all respondents said they worry about where the money will come from for the proposals of both parties. In other words, people aren’t going to vote for the DPJ because of their policies; they are voting for a change, even if they don’t necessarily see any difference at this point.

According to the media, that is what this election is about, and why the LDP is campaigning as if it has already lost. Normally, the party in power would be on the defensive, but the LDP is in attack mode. Where’s the money for all these DPJ promises? That’s the mantra paraphrased in an animated spot lampooning the DPJ manifesto found on YouTube. A young man who looks unmistakably like DPJ president Yukio Hatoyama tells his bride-to-be over dinner all the wonderful things he will do, and when she asks if they have the money, the young man says forcefully that they can think about that “after the wedding.”

The LDP’s coalition partner, New Komeito, has gone further with its own Internet ads. In one five-part series called “Nagata-cho Elementary School,” the party that prides itself on its clean image likens the Diet to a primary school classroom, where “Ota-kun,” an obvious analog of New Komeito president Akihiro Ota, is the upright defender of all that’s moral and responsible while the other students lie and act cynically. In the most obvious slap at the party that’s favored to win, one kid denies having broken something even though there are witnesses to the deed, and he tries to wriggle out of it by blaming his “secretary.” This refers to Ichiro Ozawa and the political donation scandal that removed him from the DPJ’s presidency last spring.

Another New Komeito video series entails “interviews” with “people on the street” — obviously actors — who are briefly shown what we presume to be videos of DPJ candidates making promises from their manifesto. We see their faces twist into exaggerated expressions of outrage or derision as they watch the performances on a laptop and listen with headphones. “That’s easy to say,” says one pugnacious middle aged man about the pledge to eliminate expressway tolls. A young mother holding her toddler daughter comments that the child allowance plan sounds as if it were created out of thin air just to get votes. She isn’t fooled.

These ads are crude and amateurish, but it’s obvious that New Komeito is trying to take advantage of whatever reservations the electorate has about the DPJ. The LDP seems skittish about engaging in full-on negative campaigning, but while New Komeito’s own attempts are childish (“Ota-kun” comes across as an insufferable little prig), its purposes are clear, and, in the larger scheme of things, encouraging.

What’s at stake in the Aug. 30 election isn’t so much the replacement of the LDP after half-a-century in power, but rather the real emergence of a two-party system. Having a fixed ruling party and a fixed opposition is not democracy, and certainly doesn’t promote progress, regardless of how you define the word. Power must change hands occasionally, otherwise society stagnates. Once Japan reached its potential as an economic force in the 1980s it stopped, owing to the fact that its political leadership did nothing except maintain its hold on government.

In a commentary in Harper’s last fall, editor Roger D. Hodge, writing about yet-to-be-elected Barack Obama’s political naivete, pointed out that “public opinion, the will of the people, is . . . not the cause, but the byproduct of political struggle.” Politicians with vision cannot realize their vision unless they win, and as distasteful as it is to many people, negative campaigning is a viable means to that end. At any rate, even if you don’t agree that mudslinging is a sign of a mature democracy, you have to admit that it makes election campaigns more interesting.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.